Community members at a Rainier Beach vaccination clinic. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Case Numbers Hold Steady but Health Officials Warn, ‘Not the Time to Blink’ 

by Ashley Archibald

The number of new coronavirus infections has held fairly steady over the past two weeks but continue to be considerably higher than at the end of the winter surge, even as more King County residents get access to limited supplies of the vaccine, King County officials said at a press conference Thursday.

King County averaged 294 new coronavirus cases each day for the past week, double what was reported at the beginning of March, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. Infections have been increasing for all age groups except children below age 5 and adults above age 65, with the fastest jumps reported in people aged 18 to 24.

“We are at standoff with this virus currently,” Duchin said. “This is not the time to blink.”

While cases remain steady, the average number of deaths per day has fallen from nine during the fall and winter peak to between one and two. However, while the disease remains widespread in the community, severe cases will continue to occur in people of all age groups. Hospitalizations in King County jumped 15% from the week prior.

The cities in south and southeast King County are currently the hardest hit, including Covington, Enumclaw, Kent, Federal Way, Burien, SeaTac, and Tukwila. These areas have experienced double to triple the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared to Central Seattle, Shoreline, the Eastside, Vashon Island, and North Seattle, Duchin said.

At the same time, the number of vaccine doses allocated to King County is expected to drop for at least the next two weeks to between two-thirds to three-quarters of what was needed prior to eligibility opening up to residents 16 and older.

Health officials had believed that the vaccine supply would increase in step with the increased eligibility, but the County has fewer doses than it had two weeks ago. The supply is expected to jump back up by the end of April.

“Folks have had a lot of patience — they’ve had no choice,” Duchin said. “While we wish we could bring vaccine right now to everyone who wants it, we’re not in control of the vaccine supply.”

The rollout of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has stalled while the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) studies a rare but serious side effect that has caused dangerous blood clots in six of more than 7 million people who received the vaccine. Heparin, an anticoagulant drug typically used to treat blood clots, is dangerous for patients who suffer from this potential side effect, according to a joint statement from the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The pause is not expected to hamper efforts to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations such as people experiencing homelessness, in part because the county had not received many doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to begin with, Duchin said. Approximately 1,000 homeless people have received a  vaccine so far through mobile teams that visit shelters and permanent supportive housing sites.

As of April 15, more than 51% of King County residents aged 16 and above have received one or more doses of coronavirus vaccine, and nearly one-third of county residents are fully vaccinated. As many as 90% of residents above the age of 65 have received at least one dose, and 76% have completed their series.

Disparities by race and ethnicity are most prominent among groups below 65, Duchin said. Between 49% and 56% of Asian, white, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous people received at least one dose compared to between 35% to 37% of Latinx and Black residents.

While vaccination is the most effective way to curb the spread of the virus, people will need to continue wearing masks and socially distancing, particularly around people outside of their household. Good ventilation is also critical for safety in indoor settings.

This is especially true as more infectious variants such as B117 that first appeared in the United Kingdom and the strain that mutated in California take hold in the county, creating a variant-fueled surge in coronavirus cases.

“Depending solely on vaccine right now is like fighting with one hand tied behind our back when we need a double-fisted strategy,” Duchin said.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

📸 Featured image: Community members at a Rainier Beach vaccination clinic. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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